How The Ancient Philosophy of Stoicism Can Help You Do Your Best Work Every Day
Productivity insights from ancient philosophy
Ancient philosophy does not only teach us how to live well and become better humans, but it can also help us work better.
Stoicism reminds us that we are in control of our emotions, actions and reactions and that you can turn your obstacles into opportunities to grow.
According to the ancient philosophers, time is limited, yet we fill up our time with distractions, never asking whether they are important, or whether we really find them of value.
Quotes from Socrates, Plato, Confucius, Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus and other philosophers remind us to master our time, focus and attention to get things done.
How is stoicism relevant to getting things done?
The Stoics focus on two things:
- How can we lead a fulfilling and meaningful life?
- How can we become better human beings?
Ancient philosophers preach the importance of an action mindset, and against worrying unnecessarily in our pursuit of a better life.
Stoic philosophy also stresses the importance of ignoring everything that distracts you from making the most of life.
Socrates once said, “Beware the barrenness of a busy life.”
Not all things are worth the same amount of your time and attention.
Choose your actions and tasks prudently.
The ancient philosophy of Stoicism can help us do our best work every day.
Take control of your attention
“It is essential for you to remember that the attention you give to any action should be in due proportion to its worth, for then you won’t tire and give up, if you aren’t busying yourself with lesser things beyond what should be allowed…” — Marcus Aurelius
Attention and focus are exceptionally rare in today’s digital age.
You can only do effective and productive work if you know how best to manage your energy, time and attention.
Attention works much like a muscle: use it poorly and it can wither; work it well and it grows.
Attention is more than just focusing on completing a task. We use our attention to shape and frame life’s big picture as well.
Sustained attention (focus) produces consistent results on a task over time.
In his book, Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence, psychologist Daniel Goleman delves into the science of attention in all its varieties.
The ability to single task without distractions is a critical component of success. As the saying goes, “The successful man is the average man focused.”
Your most dreaded tasks are the only way forward
“The impediment to action advances action.”
Marcus Aurelius said that.
Here is the long quote to help you appreciate the context of his statement.
“Our actions may be impeded, but there can be no impeding our intentions or dispositions. Because we can accommodate and adapt. The mind adapts and converts to its purposes the obstacle to our acting. The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.”
It’s profound and so true.
Brain Tracy calls the work obstacles “frogs”: everything you don’t want to do but should do to move on to your next task.
Challenging tasks are uncomfortable, stressful, and can be scary.
Tracy encourages us to tackle the most challenging and most important thing on our to-do list first thing in the morning.
Once that obstacle is out of the way, you can go through the day ‘with the satisfaction of overcoming one of your biggest hurdles.
“When it comes to productivity, we must run headlong into our challenges and tackle our most dreaded tasks. We have to embrace them, relish the process, and attack them with a ferocity that robs them of their power over us” says Chris Myers of Forbes.
Every obstacle you face is the way to advance your next action.
What stands in the way becomes the way. Action is the solution and the cure to our procrastination.
Focus on actions in your control
“Some things are within our power, while others are not. Within our power are opinion, motivation, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever is of our own doing; not within our power are our body, our property, reputation, office, and, in a word, whatever is not of our own doing.” — Epictetus
Epictetus classified things as being under our control or not under our control. His classic Enchiridion (The Good Life Handbook) starts with this basic idea of control.
The basic idea of focusing on the actions and experiences within your control has been around for a while.
According to the Stoics, all day long you should be returning your attention to the relatively small realm you can control.
There are so many things we all strive to get done, but to save time, it pays to know and stop worrying about everything you can’t change or do.
If you’re concerned about an impending deadline, make a list of all the things required to get the project completed.
List all the tiny tasks you need to do to get closer to that goal.
Don’t get consumed by the big picture decisions you can’t control, and focus on your responsibilities and how you contribute to the project.
Being disciplined with your time, and focus creates even more time to do the things that matter to you.
Make progress, no matter how small
“Better a little which is well done, than a great deal imperfectly.” — Plato
Building better habits is hard. Maintaining good habits is even harder.
Small things done consistently produce results.
Many people can’t follow through on the things they really want to achieve in life because they are obsessed with the big picture, instead of keeping an eye on the crucial, tiny daily actions.
Consistent action coupled with time guarantees lasting progress.
Small improvements add up to massive differences. Compounding works in other areas besides money.
Progress is always in your control if you can make the most of incremental habits.
Whatever you intend to do in the next few months, prioritize your incremental actions.
The simplest strategy to achieve larger success is to break down the end goal into management and attainable milestones. Something you can act on daily.
Time flies, but you’re the pilot
No person hands out their money to passers-by, but to how many do each of us hand out our lives! We’re tight-fisted with property and money, yet think too little of wasting time, the one thing about which we should all be the toughest misers. — Seneca
The quest for increased personal productivity — for making the best possible use of your limited time can be overwhelming but you are always in control.
You can choose to stop feeding your distractions and focus on real work
Writing in the first century, Seneca was surprised by how little people seemed to value their lives as they were living them — how busy, terribly busy, everyone seemed to be, and wasteful of their time.
He noticed how even wealthy people hustled their lives along, ruing their fortune, anticipating a time in the future when they would rest.
In his book (translated by John W. Basore), “On the Shortness of Life,” Seneca offers powerful insights into the art of living. He observed, “It is not that we have so little time but that we lose so much. … The life we receive is not short but we make it so; we are not ill provided but use what we have wastefully.”
Take control of your time and start distributing it right.
Start by reviewing your daily routine.
Track your daily activities for some time to clearly see where your time is being spent. Meetings, phone calls, emails, notifications, small chats, and many other distractions are constantly splitting your attention.
Schedule the heck out of your days. Schedule everything in advance.
The principles of Stoicism puts life into perspective.
It humbles and deeply motivates us. The way we lead our lives and do our work must embody the basic principles of Stoicism.
Do less, better.
Less busyness and more focus on your current task will change how we live and work. Don’t sacrifice the present for an unknown future.
Enjoy what you do, and take pride in your results.
In the words of Aristotle, “Pleasure in the job puts perfection in the work.”
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